This weekend we have participated in the II Edition of Hackathon Innova&Acción Business Challenge, an event organized by the Association of ex-students of the Polytechnic University of Valencia and Innova&Acción team.
The Hackathon format
I imagine a lot of people are wondering: A Hacker…what?
The term hackathon is an acronym for the words “Hacker” and “Marathon”. In its original form it is an event that gathers a good number of programmers, or hackers, to develop software collaboratively in a very limited period of time, which can go from 24 hours to a week (marathon). They are very intense hours of hard work and creativity that result in a usable solution.
The Hackathon Innova&Acción format is more inclusive, brings together previously selected multidisciplinary profiles, and is focused on business innovation. The first thing they did was to group us into groups of six people. Each group was named after a scientist (I belonged to the Tesla team and Veronica to the Galileo team).
A number of companies, many of them leaders in their respective sectors, shared a real business innovation challenge to two of the teams. Which means each company had two completely multidisciplinary teams working (and competing) to find and design the best tangible solution to their problem for a whole evening, night and morning. A total of sixty thinking heads were locked up for 24 hours in a design school (in this case Barreira), squeezing their brains to articulate a feasible proposal to a corporate challenge. But we were not alone. Each challenge had a mentor specialized in innovation. Expert figures who guided and motivated us throughout the process. And I can assure you that in 24 hours of non-stop work, you need a lot of motivation.
Shortly before the end of the event, the challenging companies evaluated the two proposals presented and chose one of them (in our case, both of our teams presented winning proposals). Finally, all the teams were brought together to present each of the proposals to their colleagues and to a specialized jury. The four baremation criteria were: the degree of innovation, feasibility and scalability of the project and communication of the proposal. The DaVinci team won the €3,000 prize with an incredible proposal for Miarco (adhesive solutions company) that could undoubtedly become a world patent, and therefore we will not reveal more details. We would like to take this opportunity to congratulate them for their magnificent work.
The Hackathon Innova&Acción is presented as a win-win situation. Challenging companies receive fresh and innovative ideas from qualified teams. The participants in turn get an excellent experience, training in real problem-solving techniques and habilities and the possibility to expand their networking.
Sprints are tired, but they work.
I can assure you that working 24 hours straight on a challenge is an exhausting activity. The first fourteen hours are a hive of motivation and dynamics, where everyone contributes the most of themselves. But at 4:00 in the morning the tiredness starts to make a dent, and coffee, sugar and juices become your best allies. You feel your brain soften, your eyelids drop, dark circles are born and all you want to do is go home and lie in bed.
But you don’t. In a motivational masochism exercise, you face the difficulties and keep thinking about the problem. Peers try to cheer each other up, staying awake, trying to shape the proposal. The mentors, selfless heroes of this story, stay up all night, guiding you, correcting you, motivating you. At the end of the event, when you have to present the proposals first to the company and then to the jury and the rest of your colleagues, your head no longer works and you feel like a walking zombie. That’s when you get on stage and in front of more than 100 people you present the work you’ve done all night. In my case, the experience was so intense that I think I had a kind of delirium tremens on stage, where I lost track of time and ended up talking about black holes.
It’s true that presenting a proposal after 24 hours of exhausting work is not the best possible scenario for real life. But it is also true that the challenge of time is perhaps one of the most important components for participants to squeeze their brains in this way. As Bauman would point out, the world of innovation is liquid. Trends and models change very quickly, and teams must be prepared to investigate, think, build and act in very limited timeframes. It is no coincidence that proposals such as Lean Startup or Design Sprint, whose procedures are executed in highly concentrated time frames, are gaining ground in the innovation ecosystem.
What does anthropology bring to an event like Hackathon Valencia?
In social anthropology we are accustomed to a synonymy between the name of our discipline and its main methodological tool: ethnography, that is, the situated and holistic study of a phenomenon. Anthropologists, often self-appointed as “ethnographers”, do fieldwork for a certain period of time, produce the data, codify them and present the results, whether in a report, an academic paper or an innovation proposal.
That’s why we were quite surprised when the Innova&Acción team contacted us to invite us to participate in the Hackathon. The nature of the event made it completely impossible to carry out any kind of rigorous ethnographic research, depriving us of our main tool and value. However, the organization insisted that it wanted to incorporate social science profiles into each of the teams, and that it considered a “human” look between so much engineering and programming to be fundamental.
So what can anthropology do without ethnography? First, it contributes to generating people-centered solutions, and not the ones that are just focused on the companies needs. It is important to work together with engineers and programmers who tend to focus more on the “solution” than on the recipients, who in real life are the real judges of the proposal. The use of tools such as the User Persona or the Customer Journey Map allowed us to maintain the human focus during all the stages of the creation of solutions. We are convinced that innovation is triggered by social elements, not technological.
On the other hand, anthropology allows us to approach conversations with the challenging company in a different way. You have to have in mind that when we were challenged we only had an hour to interview the companies, and when someone expects a disruptive proposal from you, there are many things you want to ask. While other profiles focused their questions more on financial questions (what investment do you have?), techniques (what materials do you use?) or logistics (what is your distribution fleet like?), us as anthropologists were dedicated to trying to understand what the company’s vision was, what kind of emotional links did it want to generate with its users or what experience did it want to build for them.
On the other hand, we found that the role of anthropology in the organization and dynamics of the teams wans´t trivial. Ethnographic practice accustoms us to coexist and share time and space with very diverse people, and to effectively manage all this heterogeneity. Empathy is an essential quality for anthropology. I sincerely believe that our discipline acts beneficially in the cohesion of teams, providing a transversal and holistic view towards people and processes.
In short, the Hackathon Innova&Acción Business Challenge has been an exhausting, enriching, formative, human, gratifying and, above all a very entertaining experience. An event that has managed to place Valencia at the centre of innovation, attracting a spectacular cast of local and national talent that have stoically left their skin showing the best of themselves. We are infinitely grateful to the UPV alumni Association and to the whole organising team for their work, watching over the well-being of the participants at all times (we had coaching sessions with meditation, sport, mimesis) and for the success of the proposal. Also to the mentors, collaborators and jury who for 24 hours have accompanied the participants, holding us and sharing their know-how, making us all a little wiser. Of course thanks to the companies for trusting in the young talent and financially supporting the event. But most of all, thanks to our companions with whom we have had the opportunity to share this opportunity. It was great meeting you all!